Here is your ultimate guide to playing scales with fingerstyle guitar as well as common fingerpicking patterns.

To play fingerstyle guitar scales effectively, you will need to use walking fingers with the plucking hand, combined with a consistent fretting hand finger pattern. The choice of fingers that you use will depend on the scale you choose to play.

I will share with you my recommended finger picking pattern for the C Major scale on the guitar.

The C Major Scale for Fingerstyle Guitar

To play the C Major scale, you play the notes C to C without any alterations (sharps or flats), giving you the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

Here is what the C Major scale looks like in first position, ascending and descending, using open strings.

Tablature and score for the C Major scale one octave

What is an ascending vs a descending scale?

An ascending scale refers to a scale that is played from a lower pitch to a higher pitch. It starts from the root note and moves upward to the next octave of the same note. This is generally how we traditionally hear scales played. 

On the other hand, a descending scale is played from a higher pitch to a lower pitch. It starts from the root note at a higher octave and goes down to the same note at a lower octave. So, if we take the G major scale, the notes are in the following order: G, F♯, E, D, C, B, and A.

How To Play The Two Octave C Major Scale On The Guitar

You can also play the C Major scale in a higher position, starting from the eighth fret, and play it over 2 octaves.

C Major scale tablature and score over 2 octaves

The problem with this finger pattern is the uneven number of notes per string. This will cause something called a "crossover" in your plucking hand when you are using walking fingers, alternating between the index and middle fingers.

Think of it like your fingers getting tangled up in each other. When you pluck a higher string with the middle finger and then the lower string with the index finger, your index has to cross over the middle finger to reach the lower string.

At slower speeds, this doesn't matter as much, but when you are playing faster, it's like they stumble over each other, causing a bit of chaos.

How To Play The C Major Scale With Three Notes Per String on the Guitar

The solution is to use a three note per string fingering pattern. This solves the crossover, as now you will be plucking with three fingers instead of two, and there will always be the same number of notes per string.

To play the C major scale for fingerstyle guitar, use a three note per string finger pattern; a combination of index, middle and ring fingers or thumb, index and middle fingers of the plucking hand.

With the fretting hand, I prefer to use the first, second and fourth fingers.

The C Major scale tablature and standard notation
Tablature and standard notation for the Two octave C Major scale on the guitar

Normally, when you pluck repeated notes, you'll want to avoid using the same finger twice in a row. I teach a method in Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now! called walking fingers, where you alternate plucking the same string with the index and middle fingers. 

Since we have grouped together three notes per string, let's instead of using only two plucking fingers, use a combination of three separate fingers. Use either the thumb, index and middle fingers or the index, middle and ring fingers of the plucking hands in repetition as you play the scale.

How To Practice Fingerstyle Guitar Scales

When practicing finger picking guitar scales, be sure to play the scale slowly and place great emphasis on finger placement and accuracy. The goal isn't speed, but proper technique when playing fingerstyle scales.

Your intention should be on coordinating both your fretting hand and your plucking hand. Use scales as an opportunity to improve finger accuracy and tone for fingerstyle guitar. 

You can practice all of these scale patterns as a warm up.

How To Play Tremolando Scales

One fun aspect of fingerstyle guitar is the ability to play tremolando scales. These involve rapidly alternating between two or more notes on the same string or adjacent strings.

In fingerstyle guitar, you can play combinations of two, three or four notes. Actually, you can play higher numbered combinations but I find that unnecessary.

In guitar, we commonly refer to the fingers of the right hand by letters. So, when talking about plucking patterns for your tremolando scales, use the following letters to identify each finger:

  • "P" stands for the thumb (pulgar in Spanish).
  • "I" represents the index finger (índice in Spanish).
  • "M" denotes the middle finger (medio in Spanish).
  • "A" signifies the ring finger (anular in Spanish).

Eighth Note Tremolando C Major Scale

For this scale pattern, you can use a combination of i and m, m and a, or i and a fingers.

C Major tremolando scale - eighth notes

Triplet Tremolando C Major Scale

The triplet tremolando scale is a fingerstyle guitar technique where you play three notes per beat 

I like to use a combination of p-i-m, i-m-a, a-m-i or m-i-p finger patterns to play these scales.

Tablature for the C Major triplet tremolando scale

Sixteenth Note Tremolando C Major Scale

When playing the scale in sixteenth notes, each beat is divided into four equal parts, allowing for a quick succession of notes.

As you practice the scale, focus on maintaining a steady rhythm and fluid motion with your right hand. The goal is to achieve a smooth and seamless transition between notes, creating a sense of flow and continuity in your playing

Experiment using combinations of all four of your right hand fingers. For example, you can try p,i,m,a or p,a,m,i or a,m,i,p.

C major tremolando scale with sixteenth notes

How To Play Scales If You Have Small Hands

The problem with the three-note-per-string fingering pattern of the major scale is the wide stretches between notes. It's possible to play the major scale using only two or four note per string patterns. However, you may have to sacrifice speed and ease of memorization

If you have small hands and still want to use the three note per string pattern, you can practice the major scale in higher positions, where the frets are closer together.  For instance, you could play the C Major scale, starting from the 8th fret instead of the G major scale which starts at the 3rd fret. Instead of trying to stretch your fingers, play a scale in a higher position.

How To Increase The Speed of Your Fingerstyle Guitar Scales

To play scales faster with fingerstyle guitar, you must practice with a metronome. Play the scale slowly and be very precise with how you place your fingers. 

Try to increase the speed of your scale by incrementally increasing the BPMs on your metronome. Keep track of your progress in a practice log and make this part of your warm-up routine.

If you are still looking for more fingerstyle guitar exercises, there are lots of songs you can play in the course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!